June 10th, 2005

color cycle (slow)

Thoughts on the increasing prevalence of Asperger's syndrome

Something I've seen a number of news stories on recently and not so recently: the apparent increase in the frequency of Asperger's Syndrome or autism. Of course, this is usually framed in terms of how horrible this plague taking children's minds away from the world is, and how even people with Asperger's are horribly broken and can't function in society and all people with either disorder need to be medicated and "treated" to normality. Obviously, I take exception and some offense to that, but there's really nothing I can do about it; I shall simply continue to be a happy and functional person with Asperger's. (And my use of "person with Asperger's" is not some politically correct garbage, it's because most of y'all probably wouldn't know what to make of "Aspie". I don't think it's quite correct to state it that way, to be honest- I'm not a person with a disorder. The autistic traits of my behaviour and thought cannot be removed or separated from me in some way without that person failing to be me. There's also a running gag that we tend to be people with language processing issues- if I don't seem to, it's because you've never tried to hold a verbal conversation with me- and we Do Not Need a back-asswards construct like "person with autism" when "autistic" gets the point across. And this parenthetical aside has exceeded the length of the rest of the paragraph. Oops.)

There has been news story after news story blaming the combined MMR vaccine, traditionally given to American infants at six months of age unless I'm badly mistaken, on the rise of Asperger's syndrome. The problem is, the strongest evidence they have is a correlation between the rise in children with Asperger's and the introduction of the vaccine. That, my friends, is not evidence. That is not a study. That is a half-assed guess. There are a bunch of other things that happened about then, too, and why aren't they being blamed? Even more interesting is that many properly controlled experimental studies have shown no correlation- no matter who's funding it.

It's hardly surprising. From my family history, it seems probable that it has a genetic component- my father and grandfather both clearly show traits of Asperger's syndrome. One case, of course, is hardly any better "proof" than a time-correlation, but I've seen a few web sites I can't remember links to at the moment that also said there are strong signs of a genetic basis. So why should a vaccine have an effect on a genetically-induced trait? It's a mutation, and unlike in the cartoons, that doesn't usually happen because of accidental release of uranium-coated insects, it happens because of freak accidents of the standard mechanics of genetics. (Sex is a messy affair in more ways than one.) It's quite plausible for genetics to give someone a predisposition to something without directly inducing it- heart attacks are a classic example- and Asperger's could be the same, with the vaccine tending to activate it. However, that still seems a stretch, and there is so far no evidence of a direct causal relationship- or explanation for what the mechanism would be.

I propose a much more plausible causal relationship. I hypothesize that the rise in Asperger's syndrome is due entirely to it becoming a much more desirable trait within the breeding grounds of secondary sexual characteristics. In short, Asperger's traits somehow became sexy about a generation ago.

What else became popular and, most importantly, profitible on about that time frame? Computers. Computers and computer-related fields suddenly became extremely profitible about then, so suddenly the geeks were getting rich. Not just sort of rich, but very, very rich. Wealth is already a secondary sexual characteristic, and traits likely to lead to wealth are generally considered sexy by any given society. With the advent of computers, geeks got sexy. As a direct result, they tended to reproduce more.

Consider the vaguely recent articles and discussions of why geeks are better targets for flirtation, how movie stars seem to be favoring geeks, and similar social moves. That's not simply a random social force- my Social Psychology book does a wonderful job of explaining how traits can become attractive in a society as they become more and more strongly correlated to genetic success. Suddenly, the social deficits of the traditional geek are no longer such a burden- it turns out that we tend to be nice, caring people- and, with today's market, rich people. And guess what? All the stereotypical geek traits? Why, there's a perfect correlation between that and Asperger's syndrome! And suddenly, Asperger's Syndrome became sexy.

The direct result? More Aspies with children. And if it does have a genetic basis, that has to mean more children with Asperger's syndrome.

Does that seem like a reasonable chain of thought to y'all? And in a typical gratuitous bit of famewhoring, yes it's fine to link this from arbitrary places- I've occasionally been asked before about that, so yes, don't worry.
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